The Czech Republic's Radek Stepanek made history in the Davis Cup final Sunday, becoming the first player to win consecutive live fifth-set rubbers in Davis Cup finals. The question many people will be debating over the coming days is, “Should Serbia’s Novak Djokovic get an assist for his part in enabling the 34-year-old’s moment of glory?
Djokovic, who easily defeated Stepanek in the first of the five rubbers, did not play in the critical “swing match,” the Saturday doubles. The Czechs won the match against the overmatched Serbs, who put forth outstanding doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic, who was paired with Ilija Bozoljac, a 28-year-old journeyman with a losing record (2-3) in Davis Cup. They were crushed by Stepanek and the Czech Republic’s top player, ATP No. 7 Tomas Berdych.
As a result, the Czechs led going into the final day by 2-1. Djokovic then came up big against Berdych in the fourth rubber, the battle of the respective No. 1s. But Serbia’s fate in the decisive fifth rubber then lay in the hands of 23-year-old Dusan Lajovic, who has a world ranking of No. 117. And he didn’t stand a chance against wily 34-year-old Stepanek, who is ranked 44th but has been as high as No. 8, brings his A-game for Davis Cup and always has been a very tough out. You wanted to avert your eyes as soon as this one was underway. Lajovic won just five games in the three sets.
The big question that lingers is: Should Djokovic have played doubles? True, he has played a boatload of matches in recent weeks, and, less than a week ago, he won the ATP World Tour Finals. And his participation in doubles by no means ensured a win in that match, either. Berdych and Stepanek would be one of the elite ATP doubles teams -- if they wanted to devote the energy to it.
Besides, Djokovic is no doubles specialist. He’s just 1-2 in Davis Cup doubles, and one of those losses was to this same Czech team -- while he was partnered with the same quality doubles specialist, Zimonjic. On the other hand, great players such as Djokovic are capable of doing great things -- especially when they take a turn at doubles.
According to news reports, Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic said he made the final decision to keep Djokovic out of the doubles. “After discussing all of the options and listening to Novak of course -- because he’s the one telling me is he ready -- and does he have enough energy to play the three days, I made the decision to play Ilija together with Nenad.” Later, he reiterated that he takes responsibility as “the decision-maker.”
Fair enough. But it’s hard to imagine that a force as powerful as Djokovic could have been passed over had he really wanted to play. To put it bluntly, the guy is Serbian tennis. But the narrative doesn’t suggest that Djokovic was copping out -- far from it. He appears to have been guilty of nothing more than knowing his place as a team member. Instead of bucking the authority of the captain, he accepted it. That’s admirable, even if it cost Serbia its second Davis Cup title.
Even the Czechs had braced to see Djokovic in the doubles, and Stepanek later compared the decision to relegate Djokovic to the bench to “keeping the Ferrari in the garage.” Of course, you generally can leave it to this guy to rub salt in the wound. But no matter. Stepanek has joined icons Fred Perry and Henri Cochet as one of the three players who’ve won two decisive fifth singles rubbers.
Stepanek didn’t forget the team aspect of Davis Cup in the wake of his clutch win, either. As he said, "I was under the biggest pressure that can be. We are one of only five teams that have defended the cup."
The Czechs have now won the cup three times (in 1980, as Czechoslovakia, as well as the past two years), and added to their well-earned reputation as perhaps the greatest tennis power (per capita) on earth.
It’s nice to have a Ferrari in the garage, and nobody will ever know whether it might have beaten the Honda that won this race.